The agreement to establish the coalition came after a week of tense meetings in Doha that began with a reorganization of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest opposition group, and then turned to a unification scheme developed by Riad Seif, a Damascus businessman and former member of parliament, with strong backing from Saudi Arabian, Turkish, American, and European diplomats. The result is a fresh face for the revolution that has galvanized activists and what many hope to be a viable nucleus for a transitional government.
Al-Khatib, 52, is a Sunni Muslim cleric whose moderate message and modern appearance made him a popular figure in Damascus. He earned a degree in applied geophysics and worked as an engineer for a state-owned oil company for six years before devoting his life to teaching Islam.
But it’s his early participation in the uprisings against the Assad regime, a stand that earned him a couple of stints in Syria’s dungeons in 2011 and 2012, that could give him the credibility to bring together a fragmented political opposition and armed rebels. During a protest in Douma in April 2011, he gave an eloquent speech in attempts to reach out to all components of Syrian society. “We talk about freedom for every person in this country, for Sunnis, Alawites, Ismailis and Christians, Arabs and Kurds,” he had said at the protest.
Al-Khatib’s experience in Syria is in marked contrast to the European-based academics who led the SNC and were widely seen as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been operating in exile since 1982. Indeed, he is already articulating the emotional toll the conflict has taken on people. In a fiery speech at the meeting in Doha (below), his most forceful point was about the fate of the Syrian military under the Assad regime. “The regime has destroyed our people, our land and our army which we are proud of and we are pained by every casket that comes out of it, because it was the people that built the military with their sweat, blood and tears to protect the nation from attack,” he said.
Joining Al-Khatib as vice presidents of the coalition are Seif and Souheir Atassi, a long-term dissident from a prominent Homsi family. Atassi took part in the first large protest in Damascus on March 15, 2011, and later left the country. She recently returned for a brief visit to a border town with the Free Syrian Army.
Mustafa Sabbagh, chairman of the Syrian Business Forum, a $300 million fund established by a group of wealthy Syrians in June to support the revolution, was voted the coalition’s secretary-general.
The coalition also includes representatives from local opposition groups in Syria, the Kurdish National Council, and individuals who have a long history opposing the regime. The SNC, which was all but written off by the Obama administration, ended up with almost a third of the coalition’s seats and appears to have invigorated its members after electing George Sabra, a Christian teacher and former communist, as its leader. Sabra joined Al-Khatib for talks at the Arab League on Nov. 12th. A potential alliance between the two could be attractive to Syrians who were wary of the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups.
Although it’s premature to predict how the coalition will fare and whether it will finally be able to break the deadly stalemate in Syria and end the Assad regime, the optimism is palpable. Faisal al-Qassem, a Syrian Druze and host of a popular debate show in the Middle East, said he can finally sleep with some peace in his heart after months of sadness and pain, a sentiment shared by many Syrians, based on their social media interactions.
Opponents of the Assad government who haven’t joined the coalition have largely been muted in their criticism. Hassan Abdul Azim, the chairman of the National Coordination Board, an opposition group that’s tolerated by Damascus, said the coalition didn’t reach out to the NCB and cast doubt on the project as its was formed under the auspices of foreign powers.
The regime has also been relatively quiet. One pro-Assad propaganda site circulated a video of Al-Khatib from an interview with Al Jazeera a few years ago. The clip looped the imam saying “I wish they convert to Shiite Islam,” perhaps the ultimate gaffe for a Sunni cleric. But, to the video editor’s credit, the clip included the comment in context, which only furthered Al-Khatib’s credentials as a moderate force in Sunni Islam.
Al-Khatib said Sunni clerics in Syria have neglected to explain their view of Islam to Alawites for decades, and that allowed some space for Shiite preachers to target the heterodox sect. “I hope they [Alawites] become Shiites” because it would help explain the concept of faith with more clarity and structure, he said.